18. Cinnamon and Lice

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Moribus paced beneath the great laurel oak, watching people pass by on the cobbled path. It was late autumn. It had rained the day before, turning the leaf-strewn ground sodden and spongy. Overhead, a few bedraggled leaves still clung to their branches while a cold wind tried to rattle them free.

After the austere solitude of the mountains, the ebb and flow of humanity across the plaza made him feel vulnerable and exposed. Underlings scurried about on their incomprehensible errands while the nobility traveled in pairs or threesomes, exchanging gossip. Their gazes passed over him as if he were part of the scenery. A pair of palace guards paused to ask him what his business was. Thinking quickly, he made a show of searching for mushrooms in the oak's shadow. Mollified, they moved on.

Moribus recalled the first time Meglinda had come tripping down the cobbled path, looking carefree and radiant in a cornflower blue skirt with yellow starbursts sewn into the hem. She twiddled with a lock of hair, lost in a world of private enchantments. When a mother duck waddled across her path with six ducklings in tow, she stooped to pet them. Expecting a handout, they crowded forward to nibble at her fingers. She apologized and shooed them on their way, but this only sent them pecking around in the grass in search of phantom morsels. Taking advantage of the distraction, she smoothed down her skirt and continued on her way. Realizing the deception, the ducklings hurried after her, begging in their staccato speech. She had unwittingly become a pied piper of sorts.

"Looks like you've got some admirers willing to follow you to the ends of the earth," Moribus said as she passed the tree where he was standing.

Recognizing him instantly, Meglinda launched herself with abandon into his arms. Any doubts he had harbored about following her to Alvaron were swept away in the joyous flood of tears soaking his shoulder. All the sacrifice had been worth it. She was his once more.

The embrace had come at a high price, however. When the Lady Densa caught wind of it, she confined Meglinda to her quarters for a solid month, the harshest penalty she had ever doled out. Moribus, as a no-account servant, received a switching that left him unable to lie on his back for the better part of a fortnight. He would have gladly endured far worse. The memory of that embrace had sustained him over the grueling years of servitude that followed. And it was that memory that now gave him the resolve to return to Alvaron after the failed dragon quest and make a desperate plea for his lover's hand.

The hours passed timelessly as he waited beneath the laurel oak. Every moment brought a host of conflicting emotions. Why didn't she come, damn her! But it was not Meglinda who was to blame. It was he, Moribus, who had missed his rendezvous with destiny.

One autumn had come and gone, now a second was in its deflowering. Wandering solitary among the mountains, he had been unable to send word back to Meglinda. Besides, what would he have said to her? From his silence she could only have assumed the worst. There would have been tears and denials, but then, with the resilience of the young, she would have come to accept the inevitable and started to spin out the threads of a new life. What right had he to appear out of nowhere and throw her life into fresh disarray? Yet here he was, prudence be damned.

Moribus was reminded of a destitute gambler that had hired on one summer as a field hand for his father. One night at the campfire, he told his tale of woe: how he had once wagered everything, including a bride and a rich tract of farmland, on one throw of the dice—and lost. On the farm, he was a hard and sober worker who hoarded away every copper even if it meant going hungry or shoe-less. When one of the other laborers asked him what he intended to do with his meager stash, the gambler exclaimed, Win my fortune back, of course! Back then, Moribus had not been able to fathom such reckless compulsion, but now he felt an odd sort of kinship with the doomed gambler. Here he was making his own life wager.

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